Tongue firmly in his cheek, Bears chairman George McCaskey said he gave coach Matt Nagy advice for Sunday’s season opener.
“Let’s get up on them early, ‘Sonny,’ ” he said, “and take the crowd out of the game.”
Of course, there will be no crowd in Detroit. There won’t be cheerleaders or mascots or practice-squad players anywhere at Ford Field, part of precautions taken by the NFL to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, crowd noise will be piped in — NFL Films is providing soundtracks for the 30 stadiums from which it has collected ambient audio — to air alongside loud music.
But it won’t be the same as fans cheering in person.
“I think once we get into the heat of the game,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said, “we’ll forget that there is no noise.”
Said defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano: “It’s going to be weird.”
The Bears are used to having a robust fan section at Ford Field, which is an easy drive from Chicago.
“There’s some faces that I’m used to seeing that I’m going to miss,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “I bring my own juice, though.”
Sunday will be the apex — and the end of — the most bizarre offseason in NFL history, one in which Bears players didn’t gather at Halas Hall until late July. When they did, they were subjected to daily nose swabs, symptom quizzes, hand-sanitizing procedures and socially distanced locker rooms. The Bears didn’t have anyone become infected during training camp — though, last month, nine players and staff produced a false positive.
“COVID Camp 2020,” Pagano said, “wasn’t your typical training camp.”
The NFL canceled all four preseason games and implemented strict in-season travel rules. The Bears booked two planes to Detroit so players could sit in a socially distanced setting. When they landed, they stayed separated in buses. At the team -hotel, they weren’t allowed to mingle with anyone outside of the Bears’ traveling party.
They took the final coronavirus tests of the week Saturday morning. The Bears left town later than usual Saturday afternoon so they could have a team meal at Halas Hall, rather than on the road. Their traveling party — outside of the 53 players — was about 130 people last year. This season, it’s 70.
The Bears will make a statement Sunday in the middle of the empty stadium. The team has talked about whether it wanted to protest during the national anthem since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May. Nagy said that he has a sense of what the players will do and that he’s proud they made the decision as a team. McCaskey said he wants players to follow their conscience.
Each stadium will have anti-racist phrases stenciled into end zones, and players are allowed to wear helmet decals with victims’ names.
Players must wear masks while traveling and in public spaces, but not on the sideline, where coaches, medical staff and other personnel must. Nagy has been preparing for this all offseason. His coaches wear masks during practice, and he has even donned one while alone in his office.
At first, Nagy said it was strange to see empty seats when the Bears scrimmaged at Soldier Field on Aug. 29. He eventually fed off the players’ energy. He was able to get a sense, too, of whether his players need silent counts and other non-verbal cues typical in road games.
The scrimmage featured the new public-address announcer, game-day music, video features and fake crowd noise. McCaskey watched it alone — visited only by a security guard, he joked, who wanted to make sure he was still alive.
“It was bizarre,” McCaskey said. “It’s unusual. And I’m sure it’s going to require an adjustment on the players’ part.”
Fox TV, which is broadcasting game, will superimpose “virtual fans” in the seats. The stadium, though, will be empty.
“It will certainly be strange when a touchdown is scored,” Nagy said. “How that goes, what that looks like. Or sounds like.”